Monthly Archives: February 2009

Nationalization: What’s in a Word?

Political chatter is all about whether the drastic step of nationalization of some of the country’s banks puts us officially in the company of South American juntas, failed Eastern European regimes and, of course, current Communist countries.

But it seems to some that this is all semantics.  We “nationalize” banks all the time.  Those that failed are taken over by the U.S. government until they can be righted and sold back to the private sector or orderly liquidated, all the while, of course, protecting depositors under the FDIC limits.  Wasn’t the resolution Trust simply temporarily “nationalizing” the savings and loans?

But those who support bailing out the banks without demanding scalps and accountability seem to want to suggest that “nationalization” will lead to gulags and communes.

An "Ideological Assault"

We often hear about the fiscal wreck that awaits Social Security and Medicare in the not too distant future.  I myself have argued that there does need to be some reform.  Social Security should be means tested.  Someone who has a retirement income of $100,000 (or perhaps less) should not be receiving Social Security benefits while others are trying to live on a few hundred dollars a month.  Yes, I know it’s their money and that the program was not promoted as insurance.  But I know of at least two people in my extended family who had to survive on less than $500 a month, one whose husband worked an entire lifetime and another whose husband deserted her with two young children.  That’s not right.  It’s also fair to ask people to work longer in an age when people live much longer, healthier lives.  I also think Social Security should tax the entire income, though I respect the argument against that, especially if we means test.

But Robert Kuttner makes the cogent argument in The Washington Post today that much of the attack on “entitlements” is an ideological attack, “dressed up as fiscal high-mindedness” with disingenuous arguments.

Social Security is financed by taxes on wages — and since the mid-1970s, wage growth has stagnated. If median wages rose with productivity growth, as they did during the first three decades after World War II, Social Security would enjoy a big surplus. Even without a raise for working America, Social Security needs only minor adjustments.

The argument that Social Security problems, minimal though they may be, are traceable to the declining incomes of the middle class is one that progressives should make ad nauseam on the talk shows.  Social Security is only a problem, albeit a minor one, because we have tilted the table so far in favor of the rich.

Regarding Medicare, the problems are real but a better solution than restricting care is to reform health care more broadly, Kuttner argues. 

If we just cap Medicare, needy seniors would get bare-bones care while more affluent people could supplement their insurance out of pocket. The decent cure for Medicare’s cost inflation lies in comprehensive universal health insurance so that the entire system is more efficient and less prone to inflation. You don’t hear many budget hawks supporting that brand of reform.

I would argue, from personal experience, that Medicare also suffers from well-heeled people like my mother who abuse it.  She constantly worries about her health and is forever seeing doctors to get nothing but reassurance that everything is OK.  She lives in an independent living situation.  When she found out that Medicare would pay for someone to come to her room whenever she needs a blood test, though she is fully capable of going to the in-house clinic and saving the taxpayer money, she now asks for the in-room service.  Your tax dollars at work, or more precisely, abused.

But Kuttner’s best argument is for more investment for the young.  We’re not only leaving them with huge debts, but we’re cutting funding to the things they really need — education, child care and health insurance. 

Child care costs have been forced upon the middle class by an economy that makes it increasingly difficult for a family to survive on one income. Again, it’s another cost that families have become “owners” of due to the economic policies that have devalued the incomes on the middle class.

But fiscal conservatives seldom call for increased investment in the young. Today’s young, of course, will be tomorrow’s retirees, and they will need social insurance, too.

Three points progressives need to argue incessantly:

1. Social Security is threatened by the decline of middle class wages.

2. Medicare reform cannot be independent of healthcare reform.

3. Shortchanging the younger generation will come back to haunt us.

Reporters Are Nuts

I have to say, as much as I respect the craft, too often her point, though old news, is well taken.

“You people are really nuts,” she told a New York Times reporter who called her home. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn’t get a tip.”

Acting Like Capitalists

Good story today in The Washington Post regarding a new effort by the SEC to look at the repsonsibility — or lack thereof — of corporate boards. 

With few exceptions, boards have received little media attention as the country has sought explanations for financial firms’ taking on such perilous risks. These boards — which typically consist of a dozen or more well-known executives, politicians and other influential people — were ultimately responsible for the decisions of the Wall Street companies, housing firms and banks at the heart of the crisis.

The boards signed off on the risks the companies took and the compensation packages awarded to top executives. But many corporate watchdogs say the boards of top financial firms had characteristics that promoted risky business practices and harmed shareholders.

Quoted in the story is Nell Minow, co-founder of the Corporate Library.  Check out its web site.  From  there you can find links to her appearances.  She’s articulate and has a a great frame for the argument for pay restrictions on companies receiving taxpayer funds:  The government is acting like any other capitalist; when you put money into a company, especially when it’s critical to the company’s salvation, any capitalist would ask for give backs.  It’s simply a quid pro quo.  An elegant argument against those who otherwise extol the virtues of capitalism.

My New Year’s Resolution…

…was to get back to blogging.  Check the date.  This hasn’t gone so well.  But as they say, better late…